[Essay] Aristotle on Nature (φύσις) – Part I

Ancient Source of Katharsis for the Lived Nihilism of Modernity

Daniel C. Wagner, Ph.D.
Aquinas College, Grand Rapids MI
Editor, Reality

The following is part I (of II) in a working paper adapted from an oral presentation given in Grand Rapids, MI.  See Part II here.

1. Introduction

Let me begin by providing some explanation for the title of this essay. Aside from introducing the meaning of some, perhaps, unfamiliar terms, this will also allow me to paint a general picture of the overarching goal. The meaning of the first part, “Aristotle on Nature (φύσις/phūsis),” is straightforward: it is my intention to explain the meaning of ‘nature’ in the thought of the Aristotle. Φύσις is the Greek term for nature, being equivalent in meaning to the Latin, natura (where we get nature), meaning ‘birth’ or ‘growth.’ The second part of the title indicates my intention to argue that this meaning of nature is an ancient source of katharsis for the lived nihilism of modernity. ‘Nature’ being ‘ancient’ is clear as historical fact. Aristotle (384-322bc) wrote his Physics—where he gives his highly technical and sophisticated treatment of φύσις/nature—during the 4th century, bc. I include ‘source’ here in the title because I want to be clear from the outset that recovering the Aristotelian conception of nature is not a complete solution to all of our modern/contemporary problems (especially if we mean fully recovering the ethos given to us by Christ). Rather, it is a beginning or an ἀρχή, to use another Greek term. I want to argue that this Ancient meaning of nature is a necessary beginning.

A necessary beginning for what? For katharsis of the lived nihilism of modernity! As we explain in our editorial introduction to the first Issue of Reality [forthcoming] the English term catharsis, meaning “a release, or relief from powerful repressed emotions,” is from the ancient Greek term κᾰθαρσις (katharsis). As it was developed in the Ancient Greek Pythagorean, Hippocratic, and Socratic-Platonic traditions, the Greek term κᾰθαρσις (katharsis) has a more profound meaning: katharsis means (i) the removal or refutation of harmful ideas that are impediments to the good of the human being so that (ii) the human being can actually achieve the human good. The bad idea and impediment to our good, for which I want to argue that the Aristotelian conception of nature can provide a katharsis, is nihilism. Philosophically, nihilism, from the Latin ‘nihil,’ literally meaning ‘nothing,’ is the claim that human existence is inherently and therefore ultimately meaningless. We are not here in this world for a reason, we have no end, goal, or purpose, and, consequently, our existence, in whatever form it takes, is valueless. I include the word ‘lived,’ as will become apparent immediately below, to indicate that nihilism is now a cultural phenomenon for us—one that has been arrived at not merely through bad ideas, but through major historical events and practices following on bad ideas. We are now often living out nihilism with little or no reflective knowledge of the fact.  And, finally, by ‘modernity,’ I mean to indicate that this nihilism is largely a product of and constituted in the modern period (generally, I hold the modern period to run from the 16th century, with Francis Bacon and Descartes, to now).[1] This is important, it turns out, since the full meaning of nature championed by Aristotle in the Ancient period was rejected by many (if not all) modern philosophers.

Following the method of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, I will begin by presenting the problem of our lived nihilism.  I will then present Aristotle’s conception of nature, and conclude by showing how this conception of nature can be a source of katharsis for the loss of meaning in our time. Here, my scope will be limited to two primary points. I will focus on how Aristotle’s conception of nature provides principles that help us to rediscover our existential meaning in the cosmos through (i) a naturalistic ethic and (ii) natural theology, both of which are preambles to the ethical and theological beliefs held in Catholic faith.

2. The Lived Nihilism of Modernity

We are in need of katharsis for at least two interrelated reasons: (i) ideas that have led us to an abstract theoretical nihilism; and, (ii) certain historical events that have taken place in the Modern period, which themselves thin out, cheapen, and annihilate the meaning of human life and existence.

To see what we have lost and the problem, it best to start with what we had. What we had, in Western Civilization, was a profoundly rich conception of the meaning of human existence: a transcendent, all-powerful, loving, and good God created the world we live in; everything in nature is ordered toward the human person; and the human person, an embodied spirit, is set here as the apex of natural existence to procreate, contemplate, and steward—to seek the good we are called to by God and to be in communion with God, who created us precisely for this end. It is hardly worth arguing that Western civilization is losing its Christian faith (the statistics on this in Europe and the U.S. get worse every year). A recent Pew poll showed that for every 1 convert to Catholicism, 6.5 people leave the Catholic faith (some go to Christian denominations, but a good deal simply exit the Church and Christian practice generally). As a philosopher and a Thomist, I want to propose at least a partial answer as to why this loss of faith and meaning is occurring.

What I want to suggest is that there is a view of the cosmos or the natural world which naturally leads us to a purposeful existence found in a moral law and in service to and communion with a Creator God. This proposal is supported by the revelations of scripture. The author of the book of Wisdom affirms that human intelligence can “know the structures of the world and the activity of the elements…the cycles of the year and constellations of the stars, [along with] the natures of the animals and the tempers of wild beasts” (Wis 7:17, 19-20).[2] The author then notes that this knowledge can lead to a corresponding knowledge of God: “From the Greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis. 13:5).[3] In his letter to the Romans (1:20), St. Paul also conveyed that the human mind is capable of reasoning from a certain understanding of nature to the invisible realities pertaining to God’s power as Creator of the natural world. Still in his letter to the Romans (1:28), St. Paul indicates that natural reason is capable of discerning what is beneficial and harmful, in naturalistic terms, based on the end-directed order of the human body and its organic parts (a punishment for those who worship creation over Creator is that they fall into doing things which are not even fitting, beneficial/good, at the natural level). Revelation itself, thus, conveys to us the truth that God has so created the natural world that we can reason from it to the Mysteries of Him as Creator and to the moral law. Or, to put it another way, nature is an image and a symbol the meaning of which makes God, especially as the Creator, present for us intellectually—to the mind’s eye, as it were. Here is the relevant question: what if this image and conception of nature could be distorted, blotted out, covered-up, or broken through falsehood? In such a culture, would it not also be the case that the Creator of this nature, along with the true natural moral law, could no longer be seen—that the eye of the mind would become blind to these realities? The bad idea and source of our loss of meaning—like a blinding cataract in the eye of modern man—for which we desperately need a Socratic katharsis, can be stated in one two term phrase: reductive-materialism.

Fr. William A. Wallace, the late Dominican priest, Thomist, historian and philosopher of science, who had formal degrees not only in philosophy and theology, but also in electrical engineering and physics, once made the following remark, in a scholarly essay on the intelligibility of nature: “one might characterize the late twentieth century as a period when men have become oblivious of nature.”[4] Given the advances in modern “natural” sciences and the tendency toward empiricism and a “naturalism” in the modern period, Wallace’s student, Michael W. Tkacz, has noted, it seems very odd to say that we have forgotten nature. To understand Fr. Wallace’s remark, as Tkacz would point out, one must know that he was referring to the widespread acceptance of positivism and reductive-materialism. On this understanding, the meaning of “nature” is reduced to sensible, extended, measurable matter, its pushes and pulls, and random-chance concatenations. This is the view of “nature,” precisely, which annihilates the meaning of nature and human existence, blotting out the image that would allow us to rise to the invisible things of God—God as a loving Creator who endowed us as his creation with a meaningful existence and morality. Historically, reductive materialism arose out of a bad idea in logic—nominalism—as it was proposed by the later medieval logician, William of Ockham (1285-1347), and found its fullest/coherent expression in David Hume (1711-1776).[5] To fully understand this progression to reductive-materialism in the modern period, it turns out, we need first to understand the Aristotelian view of nature (materialism is a reduced view of this). Here, then, it will be sufficient to point out a few prominent and influential contemporary figures who hold this view and then turn to Aristotle.

In his book, The Grand Design, the late physicist, Stephen Hawking, held that our universe ‘created itself from nothing’ (I have yet to get an intelligible answer to what ‘nothing’ means here, and I fear it must actually mean ‘something’ if we are to have a science of the origin of the universe in naturalistic terms); he then held that we humans “are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature.” As a result, human meaning is merely subjectively fabricated: we must arbitrarily choose/create what we each think is right and wrong, good and bad.[6] Of course, whatever meaning I subjectively contrive for myself is ultimately meaningless, as an opposed perspective is just as valid in such a world (literally, it will be true and false at the same time). Richard Dawkins, perhaps best captures the materialistic approach and consequent loss of meaning in A River out of Eden:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.[7]

In the bleakness of such world view, philosophers like David Benatar and Peter Singer have suggested that human existence is actually so pointless, unfulfilling, and (self-contradictorily) bad, that mass sterilization of the whole species might be the best option.[8] Let us not curse another generation to suffer out our meaningless and painful existence! (Benatar actually has a book titled, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence). What thinkers such as this have in common is that, at the end of the day, they cannot really (consistently) tell you that there is any meaningful point to human existence or that one mode of human life is any better than another. To be sure, many of them will (and mostly have) made claims that the good of the species is survival; that the intellectual life, and the life enriched by the arts is better than other modes of human existence; that genocide and discrimination are bad. Contemporary philosopher of biology Michael Ruse takes such an approach, in his essay “Does Life Have Meaning?”[9]  In the end, however, opting to fall in with Jean-Paul Sartre—who held that the only meaning of human existence is that we are condemned to a freedom to contrive meaning for ourselves without reference to reason and nature[10]—and sticking to a materialist evolutionary world view, Ruse is in no better a position to say that the life he thinks is good (which involves academics, opera, and the arts) is better than any other mode of life.

If all we have are a-rational emotive preferences, how can we claim that an opera is better than constant stupefying inebriation, or putting all our efforts into the gluttonous consumption of Cheeze Whiz? Such thinkers—if they are consistent material reductionists—cannot ultimately give a reason as to why the survival of the species is good, or as to why one mode of human life is better than another, or why some acts are wrong and not be committed. They cannot reasonably recommend their subjective views, as they themselves admit that there is no ultimate purpose to nature and our existence and that, consequently, there is no absolute meaning to refer to by which we might say that, e.g., the life Saint Teresa of Calcutta (spent in service to the poor) was better than that of Adolf Hitler (perpetrator of the Holocaust); or that the life of an athlete, an academic, an artist, or musician is any better than that of an un-fit, un-exercised, educationless drug addict, selfishly ordered to psychological release and physical pleasure at the expense of others in the community. In the causal framework provided by reductive materialism, there is no beneficial or harmful, no better or worse, no right or wrong, because there is no reason or order to be discovered in “nature.” For meaning, then, in this world view, there can only be an appeal to arbitrary desire.

Meaning and truth, by its very meaning, is supposed to be derivative on and expressive of being. To say that all meaning is true as subjectively and relativistically generated by individual human subjects, is also, then, to say there is no meaning, no good or bad, no point at all! It results in the absurd and contradictory: genocide is good, because the Nazis want it, and it is bad because the Jews do not. In this materialist world view, then, which has resulted in a moral nihilism, what is left to want and to take as good? Material, of course! And, if there is here no moral normativity independent of our psychological subjectivity, no way to claim reasonably that a given act is good or bad, and there are not eternal consequences for our actions—no God to hold us accountable in an afterlife, because there is no God and there is no eternal soul, only matter—then it should be no wonder at all that we are perfectly willing to do whatever it costs to fulfill our own materialistic desires.

And this brings me to the second, interrelated way in which I believe modernity has taken to a nihilism—lived nihilism. Here, the point is well captured by what St. Pope St. John Paul II, in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae, called “the culture of death.” The culture of death is primarily the culture of abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. How strained is the meaning of human existence in a culture that regularly commits homicide (biologically) against its own unborn children for the sake convenience? How strained is the meaning of human existence–how obsessed with a certain notion of material success are we–when a quality of life deemed less valuable, which is nonetheless human life, is used as reason to prematurely end human life? How strained is the meaning of human existence when a good number of us are aware that, though our parents chose to let us be born, yet they did not intend us to be here, but rather our existence seems to be the result of some failed contraceptive method—an unswallowed pill, broken latex, or general neglect in a moment of passion? Perhaps more than the way of materialistic and nihilistic ideas, these practices (nonetheless justified by those ideas) have strained the meaning of human existence. And they translate into more mundane realities: moms and dads who are not attentive to children, who even ignore them and make it clear their existence is not a priority (iPhones, work, friends, hobbies, and so on are more important); who act as though they are a burden (thus, the phrase, “kid-free” to describe situations where we parents are freed from the horrible burden of our children); or worse, the fairly regular phenomenon of parents or a parent abandoning children (the ultimate act of showing the child is not an intended end in him or herself sought by the parent).[11] Here, there is special biographical significance for many. Many of us now were conceived out of wedlock. In the realm of human acts, technically, parents did not intend conception birth, and bringing a new human being into the world through the sex act, though they were causally responsible for it. In the realm of intention, precisely, such reproduction was not intended. Now, many have been blessed to have parents who reconciled themselves with the natural end and result of their action, providing a loving parental relation. Thank God, such parents chose not to have an abortion. The reality of being un-intended in the sphere of human intention from the very source of ones natural existence, nonetheless, constitutes a serious strain on the purpose of human existence, which must be confronted.

In the year that I was born, 1980, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there were 1,297,606 legal abortions. From 1970 to 2014, the CDC catalogues 45,151,389 abortions. For those of us who were not aborted, and especially where we might have been un-intended, the question is inescapable: Why me? When so many others were not allowed to live for the sake of the material convenience of parents or society,[12] why did I get the privilege (not the inherent right) to participate in human life? On the reductive-material view, there is no good answer. In this society, it would have been perfectly acceptable if our parents had aborted, diminishing the meaning and purpose of our existence (along with all persons born into this culture) to the point of evaporation. By denying the universal right to life, we tacitly accept the claim—and live it, if even in subconscious despair—that no individual person’s life is inherently valuable; as a species and as members of the species, we are, each one of us, dispensable.

[Part II]


[1] I consider Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), in their respective breaks from Descartes via semiotics and phenomenology to be the the first post-modern philosophers. However, since most subsequent philosophers did not recognize or accept these approaches, in fact remaining fundamentally Cartesian, I tend not to think of post-modern philosophy as a period. A debt is owed to my friend the semiotician, Brain Kemple, for the reminder that Peirce’s semiotic rejection of Cartesian epistemology antedates Husserl’s by over 30 years.

[2] Here, I follow St. JPII, Fides et Ratio, 2.19.

[3] Fides et Ratio, 2.19.

[4] See, William A. Wallace, “The Intelligibility of Nature:  A Neo-Aristotelian View,” The Review of Metaphysics 38 (1984): 33; and, Michael W. Tkacz, who begins by quoting the passage in his essay, “The Retorsive Argument for Formal Cause and the Darwinian Account of Scientific Knowledge,” The International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 43, No. 2, Issue 170 (June 2003).

[5] For a more complete account of Ockham and his predecessors, see my “The Logical Terms of Sense Realism: A Thomistic-Aristotelian & Phenomenological Defense,” Reality, Issue 1, Vol. 1, Fall 2019

[6] Here are relevant passages from The Grand Design (Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, 2010): “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing…”  “Spontaneous creation,” he continues, “is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” On this view, and I quote again, we humans “are ourselves mere collections of fundamental partical of nature…”  Discussing the meaning of human existence, Hawking’s materialism leads him to these claims: (1) “The brain is responsible not only for the reality we perceive, but also for our emotions and meaning too.” (2) “Love and honour, right and wrong, are part of the universe we create in our minds just as a table, a plane, and a galaxy.” (3) “The meaning of life is what you choose it to be. It is not somewhere out there but right between our ears. This makes us the lords of creation.”

[7] Richard Dawkins, A River Out of Eden (New York, N.Y: Basic Books, 1995). In a one of his T.V. debates, he also called the origin of life “a happy chemical accident.”

[8] On Singer, see his New York Times article, “Should This Be the Last Generation?,” https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/should-this-be-the-last-generation/ Singer does, of course, use the value system of utilitarianism.  However, quotes like the following clearly indicate that, at the end of the day, he holds a materialistic nihilism: “So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices [of material goods] would be required — we could party our way into extinction!” Here, it becomes clear that Singer does not give any intrinsic worth to the envioronment. It was only wother saving for future generations.  If we just pre-eliminate those generations then we can use the envioronment as we see fit—party till we die! Pushing for an honest nihilism in his book, The Human Predicament, the South African Philosopher, David Benatar can conclude, “If we take a cold, hard look at the human condition, we see an unpleasant picture.” We exist for no reason and death is annihilation. Cf., Ruse’ Article here, https://www.hpsst.com/uploads/6/2/9/3/62931075/opmichaelruse.pdf].  This is where nihilism turns to the insane and schizophrinia: there is ultimately no meaning to human existence; we make up our own meaning for human existence; I think subjectively that human existence is not just meaningless, but so bad that it would be better if we were not born; now I will advocate for this meaning so that more humans are not born (the contradiction: human existence is meaningless; since human existence is so bad (entailing positive meaning), the thing to do is end it).

[9] I suppose his recent book, A Meaning to Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), extends the thesis of this essay in some significant sense. More research is needed, here.

[10] See, Jean-Paul Sartre. L’existentialisme est un Humanisme (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1996).

[11] I am not claiming here, in any way, that holding the philosophical position of reductive materialism would necessitate that a parent be neglectful to a child in these ways. Rather, the point is that good parents will not be so on account of a reductive materialist world view, should they hold such a position.

[12] I leave aside here, but acknowledge a possible difference in motivation, the very small percentage of cases of abortions in situations of rape and incest. In general, I refer here to the widespread and predominant use of abortion in our culture as a form of birth control.

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